Diplo and Major Lazer bring their brand of EDM diplomacy to Cuba

Diplo performs with his Caribbean-influenced electronic group Major Lazer at a concert at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist monument in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times
Diplo performs with his Caribbean-influenced electronic group Major Lazer at a concert at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist monument in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times

HAVANA, March 8 — “I know you’ve been waiting a long time for a party like this,” the disc jockey and producer Diplo called out to a sea of pulsating young Cubans here on Sunday evening, during a free concert by his Caribbean-influenced electronic group, Major Lazer.

The spectacle at a waterfront plaza known as the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, in front of the newly established US Embassy, was remarkable: a seemingly endless crowd of an estimated 450,000 to a half-million stylish locals, largely teenagers, bouncing, dancing and roaring to amped-up electronic dance music, or EDM.

This was the first concert in Cuba by a major pop act from the United States since the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the two countries in December 2014. (Pop acts very rarely made it to Cuba during the embargo; the last large-scale concert was by the band Audioslave in 2005.)

Sunday’s concert notably featured a youth-oriented genre — EDM is a rising trend among Cubans after trickling down from a boom in the United States and Europe — and a globe-trotting star who had been quietly plotting his way here for 14 months. The show was also government-approved and, therefore, largely depoliticised, its restrictions demonstrating the continuing tension between life on this island for the past half-century and the Cuban culture of the future.

“It’s the very first time I’ve seen my generation so happy,” said Robin Pedraja, 28, the creative director of Vistar, an independent online culture magazine.

The concert was the culmination of a weekend in Havana for Major Lazer, which also includes the DJs and producers Walshy Fire (from Jamaica) and Jillionaire (from Trinidad) and is best known for its international megahit “Lean On.” The trip was “kind of a lofty idea,” Diplo said, “because I didn’t think these kids even knew our music.”

Unlike the presumably pan-generational concert in Havana by the Rolling Stones later this month — days after President Barack Obama becomes the first American president to visit in 88 years — this trip was very much oriented to youth culture.

A crowd gathers at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist monument for a concert in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times
A crowd gathers at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist monument for a concert in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times

The visit included smaller parties and impromptu DJ sets, along with a government-organised news conference. There was also a cultural-exchange panel — required for American artists playing in Cuba — with aspiring local producers and electronic musicians, who asked detailed questions about software, distribution and mixing and mastering techniques.

Fabien Pisani, a founder of Musicabana Foundation, a Cuban-American group that helped to organise the show with assistance and approval from the state-run Cuban Institute of Music, worked to bring Major Lazer for the opening event because “I didn’t want it to have a nostalgic act,” he said. “I’m not interested in Havana from the ‘50s; I’m interested in Havana in 2050.” For his group, the concert was a momentum-building opening event before its international music festival in Havana in May.

With Diplo’s influence reaching new heights, the embargo at its most relaxed in a half-century and travel to Cuba becoming increasingly accessible, Major Lazer began exploring a concert in Havana over a year ago.

Being first was important to the group. “Other people were thinking about doing shows, so we kind of expedited it,” Diplo said. “It’s not going to mean as much after this.” (He added of the Rolling Stones, “They’re English; they could’ve been coming here for years.”)

Diplo goes sightseeing in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times
Diplo goes sightseeing in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times

Major Lazer’s management team and Pisani worked to stir up interest with young people in Cuba by placing Major Lazer’s work on what is known as el paquete semanal, or the weekly package, a hand-to-hand digital distribution service that spreads bootlegs of songs, YouTube videos, news, movies and TV shows around the country via hard drives and USB devices.

“I paid them to put the music there with a vision for creating an audience for this concert,” Pisani said. (Diplo referred to the tactic as “inception.”)

If the reaction from those in Havana before the concert was any indication, the promotion worked. “Hey, DJ!” street vendors yelled to Diplo at a popular flea market for tourists, encouraging him to browse their piles of vinyl records.

Giggling locals of all ages politely requested selfies with group members (and even their staffers), along with autographs on local newspaper articles about Major Lazer. “El paquete — I saw him there, on the Grammys,” one middle-aged woman said in Spanish after posing for a photo.

At one late-night dance party on Saturday away from the city centre — where more than 2,000 people danced to EDM remixes of Drake and the Weeknd under an ornate tree-fort structure — a guest DJ set from Jillionaire drew chants of “Dee-plo! Dee-plo! Dee-plo!” although he was not present.

Paola Gonzalez dances to Major Lazer's set at Marina Hemingway in Havana March 5, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times
Paola Gonzalez dances to Major Lazer's set at Marina Hemingway in Havana March 5, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times

Jillionaire could only laugh. “Come see Diplo tomorrow,” Jillionaire told the crowd before playing Lean On.

Onstage at the plaza, Diplo waved a giant Cuban flag and was mirrored in the audience by fans who held up smaller American and Cuban flags — outnumbered only by those bearing the globelike logo for Major Lazer.

Yet the show brushed up against state control for a moment as Major Lazer was barred from welcoming unapproved Cuban musicians — including the rapper Yotuel Romero of the influential Latin rap group Orishas — onstage as surprise guests.

Using additional acts “wasn’t part of the contract,” Pisani said.

Pisani noted after the concert that Cuban officials “were watching us; it’s about building trust.” — The New York Times

Diplo performs with his Caribbean-influenced electronic group Major Lazer at a concert at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist monument in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times
Diplo performs with his Caribbean-influenced electronic group Major Lazer at a concert at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist monument in Havana March 6, 2016. — Picture by Lisette Poole/The New York Times

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